You may have seen the label ‘enriched cages’ on egg cartons at the grocery store. It may seem like laying hens were given many environmental enrichments to improve their welfare. But is this the case? Do enriched cages improve hen welfare?
The conventional way of raising laying hens
In 2021, 56.52% of laying hens in Canada were raised in conventional housing systems, also called ‘battery cages.’ Battery cages are enclosures with wire mesh floors that house four to eight hens. Many egg farmers use battery cages because they are easier to manage. But hens are unable to engage in many natural behaviours due to limited space and lack of environmental enrichments.
Fortunately, battery cages are becoming a thing of the past. In 2017, Canada’s updated Code of Practice for laying hens was released. The Code outlines requirements that egg farmers in Canada are expected to follow. In this Code, the egg industry committed to phasing out battery cages by 2036.
But this doesn’t mean laying hens are free of cages. Egg farmers have the option of using enriched cages instead of going cage-free. Enriched cages provide some features to encourage natural behaviours, but still do not meet the needs of laying hens. What are some of the concerns with enriched cages?
Housed in groups of 10 up to 100 birds, laying hens in enriched cages receive only a couple more inches of floor space than those housed in battery cages. Hens in enriched cages must have a minimum of 750 cm2 of space – which is only slightly larger than a standard sized piece of paper! There isn’t enough space for hens to perform their natural behaviours, such as dust bathing, or even stretching out their wings.
Perching provides opportunities for exercise and roosting, and can improve bone strength. However, there may not be enough vertical space in some enriched cages to allow hens to perch comfortably without having to crouch. There is also no requirement for perches to be raised a certain height off the ground. Hens prefer to perch up high where they feel safe from predators.
Foraging is a natural behaviour of chickens where they peck and scratch at the ground looking for food. Laying hens must be provided with a foraging area in enriched cages. But this area is very small in size – a minimum of 31 cm2 for every 25 birds. This is not enough space for all hens to carry out their foraging behaviours.
The cage-free movement
Consumers have been demanding an end to caged housing for years. Many countries around the world have already banned battery cages (e.g., countries within the European Union, New Zealand). Australia is the most recent country to join the ban, committing to phasing out battery cages by 2036 – the same year as Canada.
Some countries have taken this a step further and banned all cages for laying hens – including enriched cages (e.g., Austria, Luxemborough, Switzerland).
Changing the housing system for farm animals is a big investment of time and money. It’s easier for a farm to replace battery cages with enriched cages. It is a bigger task for a farm to go cage-free. However, consumers are not willing to accept cages, so farmers who are switching to enriched cages may need to change again in the future! The most forward-thinking farms are going cage-free to keep pace with consumer expectations.
What you can do
The decision in Canada to phase-out battery cages is a welcome one, and one that will improve the lives of millions of laying hens. While this is good news, we share your frustration that this isn’t happening sooner, and that enriched cages will still be permitted.
To get laying hens out of cages, we need to show our support for cage-free eggs!
1. Buy cage-free eggs only
Look for certified higher-welfare labels to ensure even better treatment of laying hens. Examples of programs we recommend that guarantee cage-free eggs:
If certified options aren’t available, look for cage-free, free run or free range labels on egg cartons next time you are shopping!
Be wary of labels such as ‘enriched colony,’ ‘Comfort Coop’ or ‘animal-friendly.’ These labels imply animal welfare benefits, but actually provide little or no improvements. The laying hens may still be raised in cages.
2. Support restaurants, grocery stores and farmers that sell cage-free eggs
3. Skip eggs altogether and opt for one of the many plant-based alternatives
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